Kinder Morgan BC tank farm oil spill shows system works as intended

| December 3, 2012 | 1 Comment

Kinder Morgan changes procedures at request of National Energy Board

Markham Hislop, publisher of Beacon News

By Markham Hislop              

Was the operator error that allowed 566 barrels of crude oil to leak from Kinder Morgan’s Abbotsford tank farm last January a sign the system failed disastrously or that it worked correctly?

That depends who’s applying the spin.

The National Energy Board released a report on the spill a few weeks ago. To hear the Vancouver Sun tell the story, local pipeline opponent Michael Hale “discovered” the report, implying the NEB was hiding it. In fact, the link to the report and related documents were on the front page of the NEB website.

The report makes clear that Kinder Morgan made a number of mistakes that caused the spill, including:

  • The roof drain valve on tanks are supposed to be closed, but in this case the valve was open;
  • An “external nozzle” and the valve weren’t insulated and winterized, causing water to freeze in the system and a pipe flange gasket to fail;
  • The Control Centre Operator didn’t respond properly to alarms;
  • There were improper alarm settings in the new SCADA system that collects and analyzes the data that flows into the control centre.


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Let’s be clear about what happened in this incident. The leak wasn’t caused by an engineering mistake or a materials flaw or corrosion or any of the other supposed problems that can bedevil pipelines and their infrastructure.

First, somebody forgot to winterize the roof drainage system. Or maybe it was colder than normal. In any event, Canadians familiar with frigid winter weather know that if you don’t wrap your water pipes with insulation and maybe even electric  tape you’re going to have problems. No surprise, it was January and the drain froze.

Second, the control centre was breaking in a new data system that had bugs in it and the operator made the mistake of ignoring alarms. Anyone who has worked in an industrial setting knows that these kinds of things happen all the time. They are the warp and woof of operating a factory or a processing plant. Or a crude oil tank farm.

Ideally, they don’t have serious consequences, but occasionally they do.

Just how serious was the leak?

The amount of oil was not insignificant. Ninety cubic metres equals 566 barrels of oil, which is how the industry measures volumes of crude, which equals 90,000 of those one-litre containers you use to put oil in your car’s engine.

From an historical point of view, it’s a mid-size leak. According to data supplied by Kinder Morgan, just under 40,000 barrels have leaked from the Trans Mountain pipeline since 1961.  In the past 25 years there have been three spills ranging from 1,200 to 1,500 barrels, at the Burnaby Terminal, on the Westridge Line and another at the Sumas tank farm in Abbotsford. The remainder of the 37 spills during that time have been quite small.

What were the consequences of the Jan. 24 spill? Practically nothing. The oil was trapped within a containment unit consisting of an impermeable membrane and promptly cleaned up. In fact, most “pipeline spills” take place within a terminal or tank farm and are immediately remediated, according to Kinder Morgan.

“Nuisance odours,” basically the type of stink you might find in your Uncle Frank’s garage, hovered over parts of Abbotsford for an hour or two, then dissipated.

No one was hurt. No property was damaged. As Andrew Galarnyk, director of external relations for Kinder Morgan, points out, there was no threat whatsoever to the public.

“The Terminal has been safely operating for more than 40 years,” he said.

And what happened as a result of the NEB investigation? The Board ordered Kinder Morgan to make eight changes to procedures and equipment at the Sumas facility, all of which have been addressed by the company. The Board says it intends to conduct “targeted compliance verification activities” to ensure the promises are kept.

The pipeline operator says it will worker harder to communicate with Abbotsford residents if another incident occurs in the future.

“As a result of our investigation, we have established new prevention and community notification measures, which we have communicated to the Sumas Mountain community, and will continue to provide updates as needed,” said Andrew Galarnyk, director of external relations for Kinder Morgan.

Bottom line: Sumas tank farm technical staff didn’t plan properly for cold weather, which caused a medium-sized spill that went undetected longer than it should have because a new data collection system was working improperly and an operator in the control centre ignored alarms he should have acted upon. The spill was cleaned up with no damage to the environment and the only consequence for local residents was a bit of a stink for a relatively short time.

Kinder Morgan has had its knuckles rapped by the federal regulator, which will be looking over its shoulder to ensure changes are made to prevent a recurrence.

No industry is 100 per cent foolproof. Accidents will happen. But when they do, isn’t it nice to know the impact is minor and there is a regulator on the job to keep the company honest?

In the case of the spill at the Sumas tank farm, it looks to me like the system worked as designed.


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Category: Energy

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